Dear Inquiring Minds,
This is a letter to all seeking to understand “Interpreting Our Heritage in the 21st Century.” Freemen Tilden embodied being in and beyond his time. Tilden has influenced me, because he and I are far different from each other. His intellect did not come from the halls of the “ivory tower,” nor did they fall simply from space. He traveled extensively, became fluent in several foreign languages, and experienced the world in ways I simply have not (I still have time). His “nomadic life,” fueled by a journalist and journalism, is what I imagined and wished from the windows of my classroom and working-class status. I could only envision what Tilden touched, tasted, and outright treasured. He was a free spirit, hippie-like, that lived out his first name in ways most can only imagine. While he wrote novels, plays, and poems until he grew “tired” during his young professional life, I followed a collegiate career line to become a professor and historian. Differences are not to be feared, othered, or outed, Tilden taught to embrace and experience knowledge in the enormous forms it emanates.
What made Tilden so dynamic, is he grasp that you cannot condense the National Parks into books alone and theory’s thrust does not reach the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Tilden was a “happy amateur,” especially compared to our degrees and PhDs of today, but still would anyone say he was not a professional Public Historian? He validates the self-taught scholar, an element which academia needs more of and is a spectacle without. “Curious” and “curiosity” are highly misused words in the academy, yet they defined Tiden’s self-directed hands-on learning. The execution of practitioners have a large stake in “best practices” and should inform the pontificators of high thought and theory at institutions and universities to adhere to their knowhow. They should be at the core of the enterprise and not peripheral to the intellectual “indigestibles.”
Another attribute of Tilden is that he recognized his Interpretive Principles were an “un-sacred six.” He was sure a seventh element would materialize to amend his work and even someday a twenty-seventh. Like the United States Constitution, his principles belong to the current generation. For modernity’s pages turn, but foreshadowing is not easily eclipsed by the foundation. Failure is but an attempt. So Public Historians, Tilden urges, to add other equally robust principles.
Throughout my time teaching graduate students, I have heard many potential additions from appealing to diverse audiences to engaging technology and the systematic training of docents. Please do not approach the work of Tilden timidly, in his exceptionalism he was ordinary. Plus, he was no saint, the esteemed interpreter made missteps. For instance, look at the way Tilden employed “he” and “man” in Interpreting Our Heritage. He wrote of (no excuse) and for his time, but the clock continuously ticks, people of the 21st century must plow their own pathways. Tilden can help them, but the baton is braced to their hands. In fact, even I wonder what they will do? Do you? Do they have the tenacity of Tilden? The “Vistas of Beauty” need to be renewed to bloom.
To whomever stumbles upon this letter, turn to toil “as a scout and a guide.” If public historians are not seeking better ways to promote inclusive, equitable, and accurate representations of the past they are performing malpractice. It is the equivalent of a medical doctor telling a patient they are completely healthy, but the client is on death’s door. We have responsibilities. “Share authority,” but remember you possess authority as well. Understanding of group dynamics, social justice, and being global, green, and gender aware are all a part of our charge. When you see and sit in a room or attend a conference predominately of white people and that has few “visible minorities,” do not be shocked, speak, and wire the circuit breakers of change.
I have no resources besides Tilden (books, articles, blog posts, etc.) that have shaped my work as an interpreter to share. Why because, if I share, would you have sought? Is that which is given earned? There is enough information via the internet for the modern seeker. Look, my letter is as Tilden instructed to inspire provocation.
“The interpreter” Tilden explained, “provokes the listener to do something to himself [“himself” I told you he made errors].” So get to work (plus, I need to end this letter soon anyway)! Have earnest “curiosity.” Be a deconstructionist, breakdown the tropes of tradition. Craft something new under the sun. Directly and daily interface with the public. Tilden did. Fear not. Welcome new audiences. Visit more historical sites. Seek the people who do the same or similar work. Listen, with an unlocked mind, to people with opposite viewpoints of your own. Find community, and if there is none endeavor into the darkness…(you do have a flashlight on your phone).
Freemen Tilden’s ending was like his inception, he was restless in retirement, he never had “arrived,” he was as Alexis de Tocqueville acknowledged a “man-on-the-make.” He was then, you are now, and the future is undefined. Tilden warned: “We have gone far, but not always in the right direction.” Progress is not promised, its monitored meticulously. It is not a linear one-way.
In all, the “Father of Interpretation” was a rebel that just fit into the uniformity of corporate America and the National Park Service margins. Remember this! May this letter aid the budding Public Historian–for each day is original, and this era is lingering for new breath, depth well follow if your consistent. What will your contributions be to the legacy constructed by Tilden?
In Thoughts of Tilden
dann J. Broyld
Central Connecticut State University
dann j. Broyld is an assistant professor of Public History & African American History at Central Connecticut State University. He earned his PhD in nineteenth-century United States and African Diaspora history at Howard University in 2011. His work focuses on the American-Canadian borderlands and issues of Black identity, migration, and transnational relations as well as oral history, material culture, and museum-community interaction.